People who’ve met President Bill Clinton often say he has a way of making you feel as though you’re the only one in the room. He gives you his full and undivided attention. And he seems genuinely interested and eager to hear your story.
“Bill Clinton is a remarkable communicator because he’s unusually attentive and dialed into people,” says Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “He has the ability to connect with an audience and then turn around and make the person who was helping with the slideshow feel like they’re the most important person there.”
Clinton’s legendary communication skills are due in part to his expert focus–something with which many of us struggle. A 2010 study by Harvard University psychologists found people spend almost half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. That’s a lot of mind wandering, and it’s getting worse.
“The digital age has turned many of us into multitaskers who are constantly on the lookout for our next dopamine burst of novelty,” says Tumlin. “Unfortunately our constant clicking has rewired our brains to seek constant stimulation, and it’s not just our work performance that suffers; our relationships also feel the strain from our distracted, stimulation-seeking habits.”
But practicing focused communication skills can improve your life by improving your relationships. “It’s why being fully present in our conversations matters so much,” says Tumlin. He shares five ways you can emulate Clinton’s concentrated style of communicating with others:
While our digital habits have rewired our brains for shorter attention spans, it’s possible to reverse the process, says Tumlin. Commit to minimizing or unplugging electronic distractions, and seek out meaningful in-person interactions.
“I’m not a guy who thinks all new technology is bad, but real connection doesn’t happen through a device,” says Tumlin. “Be willing to temporarily set aside screens and give your full attention to the person in front of you.”
When we engage in real-time conversations, we are often rewarded with productive, meaningful interpersonal exchanges, says Tumlin. Out of 100 forms of communication a person might have in a day, such as email, text messages and phone calls, Tumlin suggests setting a goal of making two thoughtful in-person conversations.
“You don’t have to go out of your way; most of us run into people during the day,” he says. “Pay attention to what’s happening around you and talk to people. The more interactions you have, the more limber your communication skills will become.”
In today’s world, self-expression and instant communication have become the norm, and listening skills don’t get used much.
“The modern ways of communicating, such as social media and text messages, are I-based; they’re about me expressing myself,” says Tumlin. “We-based communication, however, focuses on what you have to say and what the other person has to say and then creates meaning from the two.”
We-based communication requires truly listening. “Push back your Internet brain and enter any interaction from a perspective of we,” says Tumlin. “Listening is foundational to effective communication and healthy relationships.”
Better relationships happen when you consider the other person’s perspective. Doing so increases the odds of understanding, communicates that you’re taking the other person seriously, and boosts the chances that you’ll find areas of agreement and overlapping interests, says Tumlin.
“Many conversations stall because it’s easier for me to tell you what I believe than to consider what you are saying,” he says. “When we make it a habit to consider the other person’s perspective, it opens up a window where common goals and shared understanding often emerge.”
The key to becoming a successful communicator is practice: “We’re under the belief that having conversations with people is just like riding a bike–you never forget how–but nothing could be further than the truth,” says Tumlin.
“Having real conversations can feel more awkward than used to be because we’re simply out of practice. To foster productive and meaningful relationships in an environment where digital distractions aren’t going away, it’s essential to make our interactions count.”